Book Review: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

I approach the novels of Thomas Pynchon with trepidation, knowing that I’m only going to comprehend and appreciate a portion of their mysteries and treasures. I think the most accessible for me was Inherent Vice. I was drawn to Vineland, which was first published back in 1990, because I had read that it deals with the continuing experiences in the eighties of those that had been caught up in the hippy counterculture. I would say after reading Vineland that it portrays hippies and ex-hippies about as realistically as Marvel Comics present an accurate portrait of angst-ridden teens in the fifties and sixties. Don’t go to this novel looking for any sort of realism. The word exaggeration doesn’t do the book justice either. The book’s plot is sort of thrown out there in a wild chaotic mess of many different things and kind of comes together at the end, although that it doesn’t ever account for most of its flamboyant digressions. While I was reading it, I found myself wondering how I could describe it, and I came up with several comparisons that fit various sections.

Parts of it, for instance, are ridiculously absurd and remind me of an extended Cheech and Chong skit. If you’re familiar at all with the drug culture of the sixties, you’ll remember that Cheech and Chong were a comedic team that took various facets of the hippy experience and exaggerated them for laughs.

Parts of the book come across as similar to a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. You’ll have a whole lot of dialog and explanation, and all of a sudden you’ll be introduced to a team of woman ninjas, or a secret government organization will invade the ninjas’ hidden mountain hideaway, or there will be a bloody act of seemingly random violence.

Some of the wackier parts of the book bring to mind sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live. At time you wonder whether Pynchon takes his material seriously and whether he is concerned with developing his characters as complex human beings rather than personages more at home in Zap Comix.

Sometimes the style of the novel reminded me of Doc Brown in Back to the Future refueling his time machine. He opens the engine and throws in any refuse he can grab, it doesn’t matter what it is. That’s how it seems to me that Pynchon handles a lot of the details in Vineland: throw it all in and see what sticks.

In a way, the style of writing also reminds me of the works of Henry Miller. Especially in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Miller takes a description or a topic and makes an art form of adding details, one after the other, phrase after phrase, on and on, long after other writers would have given up and gone on to the next plot point. That’s what Pynchon often does in Vineland: he’ll tell you what’s happening, and then add a detail, and then another, and that thought gives way to another, all in a very stream-of-consciousness sort of way. He does this with individual sentences, in paragraphs leading one into another, and sometimes with entire passages. A description of one character leads to their entire life story, and then the life story of another casually mentioned side character, and on and on it goes.

My point? I guess it’s that I can’t really do this novel justice in description. It’s too strange, too offbeat, too different. You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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